The international jihad against tobacco.

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 17 2007 8:09 AM

Kicking Butt

The international jihad against tobacco.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

I hate smoking. It's a filthy habit. It kills hundreds of millions of people, including bystanders. Just being around it nauseates me. Cities, states, and countries all over the world are banning smoking in public, and I couldn't be happier.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In fact, it's such a rout, it's getting out of hand.

Advertisement

The problem with tobacco all along was that politicians and the public didn't recognize it as a drug. They called it a tradition, a "crop," and a "legal product." As though coca and marijuana weren't crops. As though a product's legality should decide its morality, instead of the other way around. When it came to smoking, culture overpowered reason.

Now public opinion and governments have turned against tobacco. But the anti-smoking jihad, born of science, is beginning to outrun it. Culture is trampling reason again, this time in the other direction.

Nonsmoking areas in restaurants haven't worked too well. The smoke just drifts from one area to the other. To fix this, European countries are now isolating smokers in sealed rooms with separate ventilation. Lest any waitress encounter a toxic cloud, Holland, Slovenia, and other countries have outlawed eating in the smoking rooms. That's pretty harsh. I thought we were trying to remove smoke from eaters, not food from smokers.

Likewise, the point of recognizing tobacco as a drug was to regulate it as strictly as comparable drugs, not more so. Five months ago, a report by a British commission found that the financial health costs of alcohol and tobacco were equal. Tobacco was by far the bigger killer, but when the analysis moved beyond self-destruction to harming others, the annual death toll from alcohol-related car accidents exceeded the toll from secondhand smoke in the workplace. Drinking, unlike smoking, played a role in 78 percent of assaults and 88 percent of criminal damage. The commission concluded that if legal drugs were classified like illegal ones, alcohol would be judged more serious than tobacco. Instead, British law allows advertising of booze but not cigarettes.

The strangest thing about the current round of smoking bans is its focus on pubs. All over the world, reporters have been interviewing bar patrons about the merits of expelling tobacco. "It means I can drink and not come out [of] the bar stinking like an ash-tray," one guy in Hong Kong told Agence France-Presse after a night of partying. There's nothing more annoying than a stinking cigarette when you're trying to get stinking drunk.

Tobacco myopia isn't just a British problem. In South Korea, a university president has proposed to permit booze but "remove smoking students from our school." In Amsterdam, coffee shop patrons will soon be allowed to smoke marijuana but not tobacco, despite evidence that two joints cause as much noncancerous lung damage as five to 12 cigarettes.

In the private sector, the tobacco crusade has turned personal. According to a recent survey, 1 percent of companies refuse to hire smokers. Some use random urine or breathalyzer tests to spot nicotine. If you flunk the test or refuse to take it, you're out. Officially, the rationale is that smokers cost companies too much money in health insurance. But some policies go further. One company forced out several smokers, including at least one who wasn't on the company health plan. By her account, employees were told that the ban applied even to nicotine gum and patches, which don't produce secondhand smoke or drive up insurance premiums.

Urine tests are a warning sign that the war on smoking is morphing into a war on nicotine. The latest target is snus, a tobacco product that delivers nicotine without smoke. Despite studies showing it's far safer than cigarettes, most European countries allow smoking but prohibit snus. In the U.S., sponsors of legislation to regulate tobacco under the FDA are resisting amendments that would let companies tell consumers how much safer snus is. The president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids complains that snus will "increase the number of people who use tobacco," letting "the big companies win no matter what tobacco products people use." But the goal shouldn't be to stamp out tobacco or make companies lose. The goal should be to save lives.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.